To begin, Berkhof makes the argument that the mere existence of the church is an act of defiance and resistance to the Powers. Resistance occurs where there are people confessing Jesus as Lord of all in the face of the Powers. Berkhof:
[T]he very presence of the church in a world ruled by the Powers is a superlatively positive and aggressive fact…All resistance and every attack against the gods of this age will be unfruitful, unless the church is resistance and attack, unless she demonstrates in her life and fellowship how men can live freed from the Powers.
To resist the Powers means that the church is to exhibit in her life the rule and reign of Jesus Christ over against the “gods of this age.” In her life the church rejects the Powers of mammon, nationalism, injustice, prejudice, and oppression. These Powers are unmasked, delegitimized and rejected in the church as she confesses Jesus as Lord of all.
In confessing and living under the lordship of Jesus in the face of the Powers the church “builds a new world in the shell of the old.” The church isn’t seeking the overthrow and eradication of the Powers but is, rather, creating locations where the legitimacy of the Powers is routinely questioned and where new patterns of social, moral, political and economic relations are established under the lordship of Jesus in the Kingdom of God. And when this happens, when the territory of the Powers is circumscribed in the world by the existence of the Kingdom of God, the church creates a crisis for the Powers:
Just by being simply the church, she is the instrument whereby Christ brings to crisis the rule of the Powers even far outside her borders.
Again, the Revelation presents exactly this narrative. The church does not go to war with the Beasts but endures by being faithful — and God defeats the Beasts. The church is to be faithful “unto death,” that is, even at the price of martyrdom.
But why would the powers wish to see the Christians dead? Well, because to Christians, it’s better to serve God than man, meaning that the very presence of the church declares the powers less than omnipotent. The church refuses, even at the price of death, to let the powers have their way when they usurp the proper role of God.
In today’s world, we see the rulers of China — who claim absolute sovereignty — threatened by the very existence of the church solely because Christians do not give absolute loyalty to the state. They may be excellent citizens, absolutely unwilling to bear arms against their despotic overlords, but they would rather die than treat the nation’s leaders as higher than God. And to the rulers of China, this is intolerable.
In the United States, we see the same trends — not as overtly but in what is perhaps a much more dangerous way. During WWI, the Churches of Christ were largely pacifists, and the Gospel Advocate pursued an anti-war editorial policy. The federal government threatened to jail the publishers of the Advocate if they continued to write against the war, and so the Advocate stopped publishing for the duration of the war.
Since then, the Supreme Court has adopted a much stricter view of the First Amendment, and the courts would not tolerate such threats against a publisher today — but 100 years ago, the government claimed the power to limit the speech of a Christian publisher. And the Beast won that battle. (And a Church of Christ-affiliated college closed its doors under threat of prosecution for the same reason.)
Today, the Beasts are much more clever. The political powers in this nation co-opt the church by giving it a place at the table. Thus, the black churches invite black politicians to fill their pulpits in exchange for supposed influence over the politician’s policies. The white churches provide volunteers and voters and money for their candidates in exchange for supposed influence over the political process.
As a result, the black churches cannot proclaim the sinfulness of abortion as well as they would like for fear of losing influence with the Beast. For fear of losing influence with the Beast, the white churches cannot proclaim the sinfulness of laws that oppress the poor (consider, for example, the impact of farm subsidies on the price of food) or unjust, foolish wars (Syria comes to mind: why aren’t the mainline churches that protested Republican wars protesting this one? Why aren’t the evangelical churches upset over the creation of so many sojourners, fleeing death at the hands of the Beasts?).
And yet neither the white nor the black churches have had much influence over the government that I can see. Abortion is still legal. The poor are getting poorer. More and more people are out of work and dependent on the government for support. It’s a failed strategy. After all, if you can’t credibly threaten to vote for the other guys (or sit home), you are owned by the political party you’re afraid to leave. We have enslaved ourselves in the name of freedom.
Today’s church has largely sold itself to the political parties for a pot of porridge — which hasn’t been delivered. We’re supposed to be willing to die for our principles, but not only would we rather close our papers and colleges than confront the powers that oppose Jesus, we’ve joined hands with the powers to assist them in doing evil.
And then we declare from the pulpit that the US is a Christian nation — to justify having sold out to a nation-state.
Berkhof’s solution is quite different.
Berkhof argues that we must “Christianize” the Powers. …
By “Christianizing” the Powers Berkhof means shrinking them down to size. Again, the Powers serve legitimate functions in staving off general chaos and social disintegration. Cultures, value systems and social contracts (laws, politics) have some positive functions. But they only function well when they are, well, functionaries, tools of service that aid human flourishing.
The problem is that the Powers are now ascendant and “in charge” of the world. Humans are serving the Powers–nations, religions, corporations, “our way of life”–rather than the Powers serving us. The created order has been reversed. In the language of Paul we have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.” As creatures we are worshiping other created things, things we ourselves made, things like America. We built America and now we worship it, live for it, die for it and kill for it. We built this corporation and now we worship it, live for it, die for it and kill for it. We built this religious denomination and now we worship it, live for it, die for it and kill for it. …
So the way you “Christianize” these Powers, according to Berkhof, [is] to knock them off their thrones, to shrink them back to their proper size, to return to them to their proper function as servants of the greater good. Berkhof’s summary of this:
From this discernment there springs forth a basically different way of dealing with creaturely reality. The Holy Spirit “shrinks” the Powers before the eyes of faith. They may have inflated themselves to omnipotent total value systems, but the believer sees them in their true proportion, as nothing more than one segment of creation, existing because of the Creator, and limited by other creatures…In faith life is seen and accepted in its smallness and modesty…
That [the Powers] are “Christianized” means they are made instrumental, made modest; one could even say “neutralized.”… [T]he Powers are relativized, made modest. They no longer pretend to offer an inspiring center for all of life…[The church strives] to neutralize the Powers and de-ideologize life…
Of course, that would require that we keep our colleges open, our publishing houses publishing, and our preachers preaching against the errors of the powers. Rather than asking which candidate to support, we might better ask which policies are anti-Kingdom, oppress the poor, create poverty, or create million-person masses of refugees.
It’s a good thing to take in refugees, but far better to insist that the powers stop creating refugees.
Notice how little is being said by Bernie, Hillary, Donald, and Ted about the immorality of leaving millions of Syrians homeless. They are happy to argue about whether we should grant 10,000 Syrians refugee status in the US, because the voters — even the Christian voters — have been trained to think about war solely in terms of its impact on us. So long as we don’t lose many of “our boys” in the war, and so long as we aren’t overwhelmed with refugees, war is just fine. The price paid by others is not our concern. And this serves the needs of the Beasts quite nicely.